SRINAGAR, Jammu & Kashmir — The Narendra Modi government has tasked the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd (NAFED) with the task of procuring this season’s apple crop in a belated attempt to contain the fallout of the Indian government’s continued siege of the valley.
But officials concede that the scheme has few takers at present.
“Of course, this is not normal,” a government official said. “We are reaching out, but farmers are not responding.”
The largest fruit and vegetable wholesale market, or mandi, in Srinagar stands deserted, with Kashmiri growers saying they would not bring their fruit to the mandi to protest the government’s de facto suspension of civil rights in the region.
The administration has responded by putting pressure on traders to open the market, to the extent of confiscating the keys to the mandi.
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The administration had taken the keys, Bashir Ahmad Basheer, who is the chairman of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers And Traders Union, said, “To show to outsiders, look, the market has opened,” he said.
When this reporter visited the market in Srinagar this week, the only people at the registration centre for NAFED’s apple procurement scheme were the two officials manning the desk. The large grounds where farmers unload their produce is empty. The row of shops lining the mandi are shuttered. Only police vans and a few government officials were spotted on site.
Government officials said 57 farmers had registered for the NAFED scheme since it was announced on September 11, 2019. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that registration does not mean participation.
The Indian government has been at pains to paint a patina of normalcy in Kashmir a month and a half after cutting off all communication lines and flooding the valley with hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troopers. Thousands of politicians, lawyers, rights activists and everyday civilians — including children — have been detained by the police, prompting outrage.
A successful procurement of this year’s apple produce, in this context, is being seen as a benchmark for the return to normal economic activity in a region that accounts for three quarters of apple production in India, and a validation of the government’s claim that a majority of Kashmiris tacitly support the decision to nullify the state’s constitutionally-guaranteed autonomy.
Last week, NAFED’s Managing Director Sanjeev Kumar Chaddha told India Today that they expected to procure apples worth Rs 5000 crore.
Yet, Kashmir’s apple growers have chosen to send their produce to other parts of India, rather than allow the government to spin a narrative of normalcy Basheer, the chairman of the fruit growers union, said.
Are any mandis working in Kashmir?
We are with the hoteliers, the transporters, and the traders. We have done it ourselves. No one has told us. We want to tell the Government of India that we are not happy with this decision. When our identity is finished, we are not treated with respect, what is the point in working. What is the point of that work? Our future, our children’s future, is at stake.
We have not been told by anyone to strike. We are doing it ourselves. This government’s decision has hurt every Kashmiri, whether it is a trader, a labourer or an ordinary person, even someone who was 100 percent India.
[The PSA refers to Kashmir’s draconian Public Safety Act]
How long will this strike last?
At the moment, there is no program for it. It’s on.
Is the strike being driven out of fear from militants and community pressure? Is it fear more
Fear is another thing, but what happened is not right. There has been turmoil before — some were for it and some were against it, but everyone is against this.
People are saying that shutdown will continue until the government reinstates Article 370, but this is not realistic. People are running into losses.
Every trader in Kashmir is suffering losses. And the worst hit is fruit. The fruit is ready. It’s dropping on its own from the trees. 100% of this will be lost. Every trader is at a loss, but our occupation will be wiped out. The Government of India should think about that. Why did the government do this when our peak season for apples and pears was starting?
Every trader in Kashmir is suffering losses. And the worst hit is fruit.
The government wants to project normalcy in the Valley.
They say it but they don’t do it. Communication is the most important to us. That is out. They say that they have started landlines. We have such a huge mandi — around 10 people will have landlines. We have 30 to 40 lakh fruit growers. My estimates is that a 1,000 of them will have landlines, maximum. It may not even be a 1,000. Where do fruit growers have landlines?
Has the government pressured you to open the mandi?
Government officials have pressurised us several times. They say open the market. If you do not open, then we will break your shops, the shutters, and the gates of the mandi.
What they did in a few of the big mandis, the government forces came, the officials came, they opened the gates of the mandis themselves. They took the gates of the mandis. The same thing in Sopore, Anantnag and Shopian.
They took the keys of the mandi?
They took the keys to the main gates. The police and the government officials who were with them, took the keys. They took it forcefully.
They came to your house and took the keys.
From the chowkidars who guard the gates of the mandi.
Why did they want the keys to the mandi?
To get people, there. I’m not sure. To show to outsiders, look, the market has opened. That is what I believe. Allah knows more.
When did this happen?
Four or five days ago.
Have you asked for the keys?
I have not spoken to anyone.
This must have made you angrier.
Naturally. We need a lot of peace in the work that we do. It doesn’t taken one or two hours, but the whole day. The produce come from the orchards, we unload it, we grade it, A,B,C, where will it go, which station (mandi). Our customers come from outside as well — Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. In this situation, no one came from outside.
But apples are being sold. One can see street vendors selling them on the streets in Srinagar.
From September 15 to end of November is peak delicious apple is season. It’s really peak. If in August, 100 trucks go, then 1000 go during this time. If the situation remains the same, the apple farmers will be finished.
Right now, growers are selling to anyone under duress. They are loading fruits on to trucks for any station in India. Now, there are trucks for only a few mandis. He has no idea whether the apples will sell in the mandis or not, or what is the rate that he will get.
The rate is fixed here or there?
When the situation is normal, the rate is done here. A lot of the selling also happens here and then it goes to the mandis in Hindustan.
We had an idea of the rate of the mandis there because we could check on the phone. We have one variety called “delicious,” and another one called “American,” and several other varieties. We would check the rates at mandis and then send the apples accordingly. There is no one to tell us about the rates.
One of biggest mandis in India is the Delhi mandi. Now, if instead of the regular 500 trucks, 1,000 trucks reach there, the rates will fall drastically. If we had a 1000 trucks, then those would get distributed to Punjab,, Bangalore, Kolkatta, Chennai, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, to a small and big mandis. If we can check the rates, we can even try and even get shifted to another mandi, but we cannot do that right now.
But some sales are happening outside Kashmir.
Once the crop is ready, no farmer wants his crop to rot. You must have seen that in India, when the tomatoes and onion produce is too much, the rates drop, and farmers commit suicide. We are Muslim. For us, committing suicide is a sin. Farmers here won’t commit suicide. Even if they can recover the transport costs, they will live with it.
This time, the trucks carrying pears went, but even the transport costs were not recovered. We had to pay from our pockets. Pear is our most perishable item. It was a 100% loss.
What happened to the pear crop?
Once ripe, pears just fall from the trees. There was complete showdown at the time when we sell pears. Farmers were just loading them on trucks for any mandi. There were also floods in various parts of Hindustan. A lot of the produce went to one place. So, there were a couple of reasons. You can confirm this from Azadpuri mandi in Delhi. The produce reached but the farmers did not get anything. The same thing happened to Aloo Bukhara, which is also sent in August. Farmers did not recover the transportation cost.
What do you make of government’s policy of making NAFED a buyer?
They did not consult with us. Let’s see what happens.